The Washington Post is the latest major newspaper to offer extensive online archives--for a price.
At first, Net users won't be charged to search and pull up full-text articles from the Post's new 11-year archives. But sometime this year, registered users will have to pay to retrieve the articles. The cost is set at $2.95 per article on weekdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. EST and $1.50 per article at all other times. Viewing articles from the Post's two-week archive will continue to be free.
"The Post thinks it is a potential revenue stream because of the popular demand for the service on the site," Erin O'Shea, a spokeswoman for the Washington Post.com, said today. "The price point will be evaluated as it becomes clear whether or not that is a popular price point."
Many newspapers are trying to generate online advertising revenue by building huge entertainment and city guide sections, or through searchable Net classifieds. But outside entities such as Microsoft's Sidewalk, Yahoo, and CitySearch are in strong competition with local newspapers in those arenas. Newspapers now are turning to their valuable archives to give them an edge on the Net.
For example, the Post's upcoming pay-per-view archive is similar to services already launched by the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, and all of Knight-Ridder's newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News and the Miami Herald.
Like the Post, the Globe charges $2.95 to access entire articles during East Coast business hours. Knight-Ridder papers once used a "time-zone" fee structure, but now subscribers pay a flat rate of $1 each for full-text stories.
And other sites are quietly starting to ask readers to pay up for content that used to be free.
Microsoft-owned online magazine Slate announced that it will charge users a subscription fee starting this year. Last month, the New York Times also said that it will beta test a fee-based online archive. Times readers will still be able to search for free the day's paper as well as book, film, and theater reviews and Cyber Times. But to read full stories from the past year's archive, visitors will have to pay $2.50 for each article or $9.95 for five downloads within a month.
On the other hand, Billboard Magazine said today that its archive of album reviews, dating back to 1948, will soon go live on the Net at no charge.
According to industry observers, business users are most likely to pay to view archived articles. But when it comes to local consumers, newspapers should carefully consider their pricing strategies. This also could explain Billboard's no-fee strategy, since its archives may draw wired music fans who might not want to shell out the trade magazine's relatively high subscription fee, but would increase the site's traffic and hopefully bring in more ad dollars.
"I think it is OK to set the single viewing price high, as long as you offer some alternatives," said Steve Outing, who wrote a recent column for Editor & Publisher Interactive about online newspaper pricing issues. "The main thing I'm trying to say is, don't blow off the consumer."
Options could include bulk rates for consumers, discounts for schools and libraries, or offering a few free downloads per month, Outing suggested. "Time zone" pricing, however, is not the best alternative, he added, because the Internet is a global medium.
Other analysts say it will be a while before fee-based newspaper archives catch on with average consumers vs. business Net users.
"Early on, the majority of transactions will be for business professionals and researchers," said Jill Frankle, a senior analyst for International Data Corporation. "I think we'll start to see more pay-preview sites. I don't expect [online newspaper archives] to be as large in the consumer space. But the free trial is a good idea, because you have to prove the value of the service."